Five years ago, Ellert, a purebred Icelandic horse, was born with a bald white face, white splattering on his body, and blue and brown eyes. This came as a surprise as the stallion, following its parents, should have been a bay dun or blue dun.
The typical Icelandic bay dun horse has a bay dun body, black mane, tail, and primitive markings. Genetic testing has identified this new color as allele: W21 or ýruskjóttur, which means “to speckle.”
One of a kind
Horses have been on Iceland since the time of the Vikings, brought in from Norway in the 9th and 10th centuries to help colonize the land. Distinguished by their thick and luxurious mane and tail, the horses’ coat is finer in the summer and thicker in the winter, with three distinct layers, as protection from the country’s harsh climate.
In the 10th century, the government banned the importation of horses to prevent the degeneration of stock and discourage crossbreeding. Horses that leave Iceland are not even allowed to return! Each Icelandic horse living around the world is also tracked on a database created by the International Federation of Icelandic Horse Associations (FEIF).
FEIF represents Icelandic horse associations in 21 countries and focuses on horse welfare and proper horsemanship. Each horse can be traced back to ancestors from Iceland and the registry of a new horse requires a proof of Icelandic ancestry. These strict laws have ensured that Icelandic horses have remained purebred for over a thousand years.
The Icelandic horse is also renowned for having five natural and unique gaits – the walk, trot, canter, tölt, and flying pace. All horse breeds naturally walk, trot, and gallop. The tölt is an extraordinarily smooth four-beat gait, where at least one foot always touches the ground. The footfall is similar to the walk, but is almost as fast as a gallop.
The flying pace is a high speed gait where both legs on one side of the horse simultaneously touch the ground and at times all four hooves can be suspended off the ground. This gait can be as fast as a full gallop and is primarily used for racing. Riding at a flying pace is often considered the height of horsemanship.
The mystery of ýruskjóttur
According to Ellert’s breeder Baldur Eiðsson, “It’s not possible to get pinto colors from two one colored parents.” Genetic expert Freyja Imsland explained that “What makes Ellert unique is that he has a variant that is only present in him and his offspring – this particular change doesn’t exist in any other horse in the world.”
Ellert comes from two of the best breeding blood lines in Iceland, both of which have produced first-class offspring. A DNA test showed that the ýruskjóttur pattern is due to a gene mutation that is closely related to the “dominant white” gene.
Tosso Leeb, director of the Institute of Genetics at the University of Bern, stressed that this white spotting was “particularly unique” in Icelandic horses. “To the best of knowledge this is the first in Icelandic horses and this is special to breeders.”
Keeping the color alive
Maintaining the new coat pattern, however, may be a challenge. Leeb stated that breeding horses with the same gene mutation may result in deaf or unhealthy offspring. “As long as horses like this are bred to uniform colored horses that are pigmented all over – no large markings – everything will be fine.” Disease or natural disasters can also wipe out the color anytime.